By Claudia Kienzle
Issue: September 1, 2004

Audio For Feature Films

"We're at the point in film sound where we have so many fun, cool tools," notes sound editor Steve Boeddeker of San Rafael, CA's Skywalker Sound. "Now it's time to look at the tools and make sure we use them wisely, use them to tell a story. We have to constantly ask ourselves, 'Are we using this tool just to use it or to advance the story and emotions?'"


M. Night Shyamalan's The Village takes place in a quiet town on the edge of a forest that's had a pact with the strange, unseen creatures who live in the woods. The villagers and the creatures have kept to themselves until one of the townspeople breeches the agreement, enters the forest and the village comes under attack.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Buena Vista Sound had to create sound from scratch because no location sound existed.
But The Village is more than a thriller. "There's the idea of the subjectivity of fear that's very societal and almost has a political sense to it," observes Boeddeker, who served as sound designer on the film. "The village is very idealistic and perfect, but there's an undercurrent of tension and fear. Different people and age groups deal with it differently. As a result the sound design had to range from literal to extremely subjective. We played with entire scenes going both ways up until the end."

Boeddeker enjoyed a close relationship with director Shyamalan throughout the filmmaking process. "It's amazing to see how Night thinks about sound. Everything comes down to the story and emotions," -he reports.

He also teamed with Frank Eulner, a veteran of several David Lynch pictures who was sound supervisor at the start of the project. "As the sound design evolved, our credits mushed together," Boeddeker reports. "Frank is really able to get abstract and bizarre, which is where Night wanted to go a lot of the time."

Skywalker's Steve Boeddeker: "We have to constantly ask ourselves, are we using this tool just to use it or to advance the story and emotions?"
Boeddeker and Eulner worked on Digidesign Pro Tools in separate rooms at Skywalker Sound ( ), swapping scenes, which would trigger new ideas from each other. They posted mixes to an FTP site so film editor Chris Tellefsen could load them into his Avid in the edit room of Shyamalan's Pennsylvania farm. Later Boeddeker spent time with them in a Pro Tools suite on the farm. "Early on we'd sent some very subjective and surreal stuff to Chris and he loved it; then when we sent another mix that was very literal he called and asked what happened. I realized he was really hearing what we had done and appreciating it."

Since so much of the sound design is subjective, the creatures do not have a single signature sound. "The woods are as much a character as anything," he notes. "We decided to rely heavily on organic sounds that weren't synthesized or heavily processed. A lot was playing with wind, creaks and snaps - sounds that as a child you found absolutely terrifying."

The team also used mono, stereo and surround for a "small-world, big-world feel" depending on the scene. "We found that things played mono from Avid had a more documentary feel - you felt right there with them, and that really appealed to Night," Boeddeker recalls.

For Cellular, Todd-AO West added an electrical sound as if the smashed phone was about to short out.
At Skywalker Sound, David Hughes was sound effects editor, Gwen Whittle ADR editor, Marshall Winn dialogue editor and Jonathan Null Foley editor. Shannon Mills was supervising assistant, Lisa Chino dialogue supervising assistant and Jessica Bellfort ADR assistant. Academy Award-winner Michael Semanick was the effects mixer with Lee Victor and Rob Fernandez dialogue and music mixers at Sound One, New York. James Newton Howard scored The Village.


Like Boeddeker with Shyamalan, Paul Urmson, supervising sound editor and sound designer at New York's C5 Sound Editing ( ), developed a close, collaborative relationship with The Manchurian Candidate director Jonathan Demme.

Demme already had strong ties with C5 partner Ron Bochar with whom he'd worked on The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. With Bochar occupied with The Stepford Wives, Urmson teamed with Demme on Paramount's long-awaited remake of the classic political thriller.

The Village's sound design was created at Skywalker Sound. The mix took place at Sound One in New York.
As soon as production wrapped on The Manchurian Candidate, Urmson and an assistant moved to Demme's offices in Nyack, NY, where the picture editing department was already at work. "I set up a 5.1 room, toned out so it would be accurate, and started doing sound design and temp mixes on scenes," he recalls. He outfitted the audio room with a Pro Tools 6.3 with plug-ins, a Control|24 surface and outboard gear. A high-speed Internet connection enabled him to access sound effects from a C5 FTP site.

Urmson also did considerable sound design work in Logic Audio. "It's so flexible with plug-ins right now while Pro Tools only supports RTAS and TDM formats," he notes.

Urmson believes working in Nyack was critical to successful audio post. "It was important to be close to the picture department so I could create things for them on the fly; even discussions over lunch generated ideas for sound design. Jonathan has a tendency to work in a very nonlinear way. He'll say, 'I have this idea, let's work on this,' and it may not be specifically effects-related. He just wants to try to get a particular emotion across."

For Sky Captain, Buena Vista Sound's Todd Toon "had to capture the essence of vintage sci-fi without being too obvious."
Demme favored a quite adventurous use of sound. "He wasn't hung up on the minutia of the right gun cock," Urmson notes. "He wanted a door sound to be bigger than a gun or to go from a quiet scene to huge loud truck going by - dynamic but not necessarily logical. They help to make the film interesting."

Urmson developed certain high-frequency sounds that are first heard as Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) recalls the ambush during Desert Storm, which led to Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) being called a hero. He reprised the same sounds later in connection with the brainwashing that occurred when the soldiers were captured. He also created a tapestry of sirens, radios, police and military presence, which "add a layer of tension to the film." The story takes place in post-9/11 Washington, DC, and NewYork City.

Urmson relied on subtle, surreal sounds to chart Marco's descent into what he feels is madness, as recurring nightmares suggest there was more to the ambush and capture than he can remember. The dreams culminate in a sequence featuring the soldiers' mantra that Shaw was the "kindest, bravest" guy they've ever known. "Blake Leyh and I did a lot of processing in Logic Audio on many different ADR reads and panning in surrounds to give the mantra a very bizarre quality as it builds to a peak," he explains.

Extreme Measures helped Mark Norberg, director of The Heat Chamber (pictured), get the sound he wanted via low-cost tools.
For the shocking lake and kayaking scene, Urmson used both location sound effects, recorded by Eric Potter on a secluded lake near Eugene, OR, and Foley from the water pit in C5's huge Foley stage in Northvale, NJ. "The location sound effects were very violent and dramatic, but the Foley was beautiful in its detail and clarity," he observes. "It was nice to mesh the two departments." Urmson also tapped Cycling 74's Pluggo series of plug-ins for Logic and Pro Tools to process underwater vocals.

George Lara was Foley mixer, Marko Costanzo was Foley artist and Steve Visscher was supervising Foley editor in Northvale. Tom Fleischman did the mix at New York City's Soundtrack.


In New Line Cinema's Cellular, the action-packed suspense feature which hits big screens this month, a random cell phone call by a kidnapped woman (Kim Basinger) enlists a young man (Chris Evans) in her plight as he tries to find her and warn the other members of her family who are in danger.

Crawford fine tuned the dialogue predub, sound effects stem and music for the indie Big Ain t Bad.
Dave McMoyler, supervising sound editor at Soundelux Hollywood (www.soundelux. com/ ), talked with film editor Eric Sears early on about the approach they'd use for the telephone conversations, which play a central role in the story. This is not your basic cell phone call: one of the villains smashes a telephone to intimidate his hostage, science teacher Basinger. She's able to kluge the components together and send out a signal which reaches Evans's freewheeling surfer character, who thinks the call is a prank.

"The principal challenge was to find a way to maintain an emotional connection between Kim and Chris in the midst of a lot of action: a car chase, a shootout, a standoff at the end," explains McMoyler. "I talked with director David Ellis and Eric about some recent films that have had almost no futz treatment with the phones so it sounds like the person is almost in the same room with you. To just play Kim's voice totally non-processed while Chris spends so much time in his car wasn't the right way to go. Neither was dialing in one standard futz treatment. So we decided to vary the amount of processing, backing it down where we needed more intimacy and racheting it up to create more distance and tension."

McMoyler and sound designer Jon Title degraded the phone dialogue with the Pro Tools plug in Recti-Fi by D-Fi. "Rather than lay static on top of the clean production dialogue, it took peaks and valleys from the waveform and almost put barnacles on the dialogue - an encrustation of sound," McMoyler reports. "We also cut out little chunks of dialogue for drop outs as Chris is about to lose his connection, but we were careful not to lose any important exposition."

Foley artists Jeff Wilhoit and James Moriana at Todd-AO West crafted key sounds for Basinger's end of the conversations. "You see her with wires holding the broken receiver and mouthpiece in place; if she's not careful it will fall apart," says McMoyler. "You hear a bit of electrical sound as if the phone's about to short out and the physical sound of loose pieces."

McMoyler auditioned all of Nokia's ring sounds but chose the standard ring for its instantly recognizable quality. Sound recordists John Fasal and Mark Ormandy contributed sounds of Evans's vehicles deteriorating as they're driven into the ground.

"In the current environment, every film seems to top the last in terms of being louder and bigger with more events happening simultaneously," says McMoyler. "Movies that are visual-effects-driven put so much on screen at the same time that the initial reaction for sound people is to cover every element you see, and that can be a trap. You lose the forest for the trees in an aural sense if everything plays and nothing reads. You need to find which elements really help tell the story at any given moment and try to feature those."

Even silence can speak volumes. "When the speakers go silent as Chris loses contact with Kim it might be the most effective moment in the mix," he says. "When you've expended a lot of action and find a moment when it works to go to zero it can make the surrounding action that much more effective."

At press time, the mix was upcoming at Todd-AO with dialogue/music mixer Jon Taylor and effects mixer Michael Keller. Nerses Gezalyan was the Foley mixer; Bob Deschaine and Greg Steele recorded the ADR.


Paramount's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which opens this month, had an unusual production process that found supervising sound editor and sound designer Todd Toon, with Burbank's Buena Vista Sound (, getting in on the ground floor. "The movie is a sci-fi period picture set in 1939, a tribute to cliffhanger serials and B movies," he notes. "It was shot bluescreen... twice: once with stand-ins in a warehouse in Van Nuys, which enabled the animators to start working on the CGI backgrounds, and about a year later with the actors. We began creating sound from scratch after the first shoot because there was only production dialogue, no location sound."

By beginning the audio so early, Toon was able to get access to director Kerry Conran, a friend for the past 20 years, before he was engrossed with visual effects and principal photography in England. "I'd drag him to my cutting room and play sound sketches and ideas," Toon recalls. "The goal was to have him sign off on as many of the signature-type elements for the different robots and machines as possible."

Overall, Toon was challenged with creating "an aural environment that would serve the past as well as the future. We had to capture the essence of vintage sci-fi without being too obvious. That required inventing sounds that vacillate between corny and cool."

Toon relied on the weight and size of the large robots, which march through New York City, to sell them to the audience. "We avoided mechanical sounds and went with heavy, rhythmic impact and crunching debris," he explains. Squiggly-armed robots, which move more elegantly, were accompanied by more graceful - but still scary - sounds that radiate energy. Stealthy aircraft, whose wings flapped like birds or bats, had forceful whooshing sounds sweetening more conventional jet engines.

Toon recorded wind-up-type dynamo motors for the lab environments and, with his computer, crafted eerie theramin-like sounds. "We didn't want to lean too heavily on theramins, but it was Kerry's idea to have elements of them find their way into the ambiance and texture so they're not identifiable." Toon's chief tool was Pro Tools V. 5.1.3. He held off on software upgrades once the project was underway.

By the time Toon got the first cut for the temp dub, at least 50 percent of the sound effects had already been assembled and cut to animatics. "Some sounds were done from our imagination because we only had bluescreen and Kerry describing the environment," he points out. "When we saw the visual effects, sometimes things really worked, sometimes they needed something extra or were too busy. But the overall quality was very close to what we wanted."

Toon believes his early involvement was "the only way to do a show this size with this volume of material. Everything hinged on me having the prep time to get as much done in advance as possible. Once things started moving [with the production] I had to take off my sound designer hat and put on my supervisor hat, dealing with problem solving and time and crew management, and that saps you creatively. That's why you want the heavy lifting done early."

The mix was done at Disney's main theater with Terry Porter and Dean Zupancic, who maintained a delicate balance among dialogue, sound effects and Ed Shearmur's score. Producer Jon Avnet worked closely with the mixers during the final dub. "Jon's a hands-on producer who loves the dub stage and used his many years of experience to guide Kerry through the mix process," Toon points out.


Animated features always pose unique challenges for all concerned with their long gestation period and ability to bridge fantasy and reality. Richard Anderson of Technicolor Sound Services Hollywood (, who served as supervising sound editor for DreamWorks' new animated feature, Shark Tale, began work last January, diving fulltime into the project during the spring.

Shark Tale tells the story of Oscar, a fast-talking little fish who dreams big. His dreams land him in hot water when he tells a great white lie that turns him into an unlikely hero.

"Unlike the more realistic Finding Nemo, this is an interpretation of big-city human society in an underwater realm," says Anderson. Early on it was decided not to process the voices of the fish and the sharks to make them echo-y or muffled. "It would drive you nuts over the course of the movie, so we assume you're hearing the voices adapted to their environment," he explains.

Anderson teamed with Wade Wilson and Mark Binder on sound design. Because the sharks inhabit a sunken ship, they could use metallic sounds in depicting the sharks' environment. The fish, on the other hand, are surrounded by organic matter like coral, kelp and other vegetation. "The fish also have a lot of things - like dumpsters, mail boxes - which are normally made of metal but are made out of shells. For them, we tried to combine organic sounds with elements of the sounds we're used to hearing so they'd ring true with the audience," Anderson notes.

The movie's directors decided to steer clear of "the splishy-splashy sounds" associated with the surface, Anderson says. "We tried to keep to the low end deeper in the water - it's rumbly, heavier, more water is bearing down. Closer to the surface things are lighter and airier. As we premixed the background, there are changes of depth within scenes, and we made those variations." Binder also processed the sound of dolphins and whales so they'd sound somewhat like traffic.

Anderson selected many sounds from Technicolor's own library, cutting them on Pro Tools V.5. He and his team also recorded new raw material. Wilson hung up a curtain of kelp from the beach and recorded movement through it for undulations in the current and the fishes' impact on it. The team used leaves to create seaweed paper that didn't have the crispness of real paper and captured the bubbling of a big aquarium tank. "We created a buffet of sounds but, as they start the final dub, we don't know what will make it into the final mix," Anderson points out.

The mix will be done at 20th Century Fox on the Howard Hawkes Stage by Andy Nelson and Anna Behlmer. Shark Tale is slated for release October 1.


It's becoming routine for Atlanta's Crawford Communications ( to have an indie feature in-house. "It used to be that filmmakers would come with budgets so low that we knew we couldn't give them a return in line with the costs of even a moderate-sized theatrical run," says director of audio Steve Davis. "But with digital technology producing fairly cost-effective film prints, the ability to get theatrical runs on digital media and people looking only at video distribution - not to mention increased competition in the marketplace - we're more open to these smaller films."

Many indie features are "story and character-driven" and require "less of a full-court press" than a full-blown Hollywood film, Davis notes. Nevertheless Crawford can help indie filmmakers prepare for distribution with its own extensive palette of services and by arranging for film record outs, up-rez or Dolby theatrical encoding. "We want to make sure the last technical mile is done correctly," he says.

Indie filmmakers often "want to do as much audio as possible in the offline, and with Final Cut or Avid you can do quite a bit," says Davis. "You can take dialogue in the form of an OMF, predub, level it out, fix it if necessary. Or filmmakers can come to us for a full spotting session: sound design, ADR, Foley."

Producer/director Ray Culpepper, of Atlanta-based A-Town Filmworks, took his second feature Big Ain't Bad to Crawford to prepare for a limited theatrical release last April at area Regal Cinemas, Magic Johnson Theatres (Loew's Cineplex) and a few independent chains. The romantic comedy is due for a national college tour this fall, has a deal with cable's Starz! channel in December and will be released on video next February.

"Audio is very crucial to the success of a film," says Culpepper, whose picture had about a half-million-dollar budget. "I see a lot of screenings at festivals, and if the sound isn't good, it's a turn off. We wanted the best quality sound we could get for theatrical release, and Crawford did a great job of bringing all the elements together for us."

Culpepper had dialogue and basic sound effects done by Riot Atlanta, where he had worked before, then came to Crawford to fine tune the dialogue predub, sound effects stem and music, add more ambiance's and smooth transitions.

"Mixer Greg Crawford took the OMF from Riot into Pro Tools|HD in Audio A where we have an SSL Avant post production console and did the surround mix through the printing to TASCAM DA-88 with timecode matching the film rolls," Davis explains. "He also tuned up the sound design for surround."

Crawford sent the audio of Big Ain't Bad to Magno in New York, where a Dolby consultant supervised the theatrical audio print master. The video masters went to Heavy Light Digital to scan back to film for the theatrical answer print.

Crawford has two HD features, from filmmakers in Nashville and Chicago, on tap for the fall.

Independent filmmakers may realize the importance of audio post production but little budget may remain at that stage. Phil Crescenzo, who heads Oak Park, CA's Extreme Measures (, found an unusual way to help director Mark Norberg complete audio post for his first feature, the psychological thriller The Heat Chamber.

While Crescenzo was creating 50 to 60 visual effects shots, including full CG sequences, for the film, he shepherded the director through the audio post process in one of Extreme Measures' rooms.

The Heat Chamber had been shot with a Canon XL-1S with a P&S Teknik Mini 35 adapter and sound recorded separately on DAT. Norberg had cut the film on an old Avid over the course of a year, then went to Crescenzo for visual effects and the conform by Crescenzo's son Casey. At that point, "it would have broken the bank if I had to pay somebody to do the audio," Norberg notes. "Phil gave me the basics and let me go."

Extreme Measures has a Steinberg Nuendo suite with a custom-configured AMD PC, Yamaha O2R and a Frontier Designs Dakota card that communicates with the O2R via a Lightpipe ADAT connection. But since Norberg was not an audio professional, Crescenzo set him up with Apple Final Cut Pro.

"Mark had edited on such an old Avid that it couldn't capture his original DV footage and a lot of the audio was fairly distorted. So we recaptured the material to Final Cut and that helped a great deal," Crescenzo recalls. "Rather than have Mark learn Nuendo, we felt he could learn Final Cut, which has a smaller, basic audio toolset. It wasn't as slick as doing audio on a lot of other nonlinear systems, but once he got going he was able to create 24 tracks of audio that worked pretty well for his film." The process wasn't without hitches: Leo Wong, under Crescenzo's supervision, had to use an Avid Media Composer V.10.6 as an intermediary to get OMF files from the Media Composer V.6 to Final Cut.

Tapping Crescenzo's extensive sound effects libraries - Hollywood Edge was a favorite - Norberg placed and tweaked sounds ranging from a complex car crash sequence to simple kitchen plate clinks and doorknob turns. He brought in original music and ADR exported from Nuendo.

"It was a real education going through the entire post production process with Phil," says Norberg, who achieved more polished final sound than he expected. "I had 24 tracks of sound at any given time and in several sequences, like the crash, I was using them all. I could keep adding layers of effects almost like an musical endeavor."

Crescenzo believes other indie filmmakers can take a similar route. "Get a professional to talk you through and you can accomplish a lot yourself."